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How COVID-19 Has Made Occupational Health Services Indispensable

2 December 2020


In this blog, we hear from Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) and Dr Will Ponsonby, President of the SOM, about the impact of COVID-19 on occupational health and the importance of workplace safety.

No health care worker should die from a work-acquired infection. Despite this, scores of UK healthcare workers have already died from COVID-19. Concern has been raised, for example, about the shortcomings of and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE); but PPE should be considered the lowest form of protection. Occupational Health (OH) are specialists in this area and can advise employers on a range of controllable factors to apply safe systems of work. OH has played a key role in helping employers and employees in the UK (and globally) to support risk reduction and assessment. Health care worker safety also impacts patient safety, highlighted in a recent webinar hosted by the OH global network.

At the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM), we’re calling for all work-related deaths to be prevented, particularly for health care workers. In the UK, we also want to highlight the particular issues for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as death rates from COVID-19 are higher among these communities. We are also calling for universal access to OH as only half of the UK workforce currently has access. Around the world, particularly in developing countries, there is often no occupational health at all. By investing in OH, Governments can safeguard their healthcare workforce and manage risks. Sadly, educational institutions where healthcare professionals, both medical and nursing, can undertake training in this specialism are few and far between. This WHO course on occupational health and safety for health care workers is a good place to start.

OH supports informed decisions on how to risk manage health and care staff, considering workers’ individual vulnerability to serious illness or death from COVID-19, in relation to known risk factors including age, sex, ethnicity, body mass index and underlying medical conditions. This approach has enabled NHS employers to estimate the individual risk to their staff and supported them to make decisions on how to redeploy staff, or consider adjustments including mitigating factors such as enhanced PPE, to ensure that the COVID-19 risk is controlled, or at least addressed logically and consistently. For more information, please click here.

It is important to note that the health effects of widespread unemployment due to the outbreak could be worse than COVID-19 itself. Governments have an opportunity to support workplace health through occupational health –  giving health care services and businesses the best chance to protect both their heath and business.

SOM is keen to link with organisations in resource poor settings to share experiences and learn from each other – do contact me for details.


SOM have developed a variety of resources such as Return to Work Toolkits, including one on Sustaining Work-Relevant Mental Health Post COVID-19 in collaboration with the Royal College of Psychiatry and CIPD. Also, take a look at the Journal of Occupational Medicine and BMJ editorials on Safely returning clinically vulnerable people to work and Covid-19 in the workplace.

Mental health is a key issue – SOM published a systematic review considering the mental health and wellbeing of nurses and midwives which followed an earlier SOM report considering the mental health of UK doctors. SOM also hosted a webinar on mental health with slide presentations available here, here and here.

This post was written by:

Nick Pahl, CEO, SOM - Dr Will Ponsonby, President of the SOM (2019/20)


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